Glory days a distant memory for superfans

Playoff loss is a sharp contrast to the Super Bowl year for Big Nasty, Pirate Lady and A-Train.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 7, 2008

TAMPA - Keith Kunzig remembers the good old days: the excitement, the fame, the public appearances, and best of all, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl championship in 2003.

And people remember Kunzig, also known as "Big Nasty." King of the superfans, red and pewter war paint, grotesque horn jutting from his plastic helmet.

The camera loved him, catching him jeering, high-fiving, praying to the football gods. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fans and appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He even had his own bobblehead.

But in the last five years, the glory of being a Bucs superfan has faded. Since winning Super Bowl after the 2002 regular season, the Bucs have made it to the playoffs twice. They lost in the first round two years ago, and made a quick exit again Sunday.

The superfans are hanging on, though. And they were just as excited as ever to be tailgating - at a playoff game, no less! - vs. the New York Giants, The Bucs would lose, 24-14, but before the game, the superfans reeked of hope as they smeared on the makeup, blew their train whistles and posed for photos with other fans.

Some might not even recognize Pirate Lady and A-Train Man, who used to be regulars in ESPN highlight reels.

Even Big Nasty Kunzig, 40, looks like a husk of his former self ... which is a good thing. Too many years of beer and bratwurst put him at a dangerous and diabetic 426 pounds in 2006, but now he's down to a healthier 270.

"I got lap band a device that limits food intake procedure," said Kunzig, enjoying a Red Bull and vodka before the game. "I'm going to live now."

Sylvia Huddleston, also known as Pirate Lady, was certain the Bucs would beat the Giants. She was so excited, she accidentally reached for nail glue instead of eyelash glue when dressing up for the game. She could have sealed her eyelids shut. Worse, the toxic glue could have blinded her. But she wouldn't have missed the game, she said.

The 57-year-old from Riverview first caught on to superfandom when she began painting her face and dressing up during the Bucs' Super Bowl season. During the dry years that followed, Pirate Lady has taken on a more subdued appearance, donning fingerless lace gloves, fishnets and face glitter.

"At first, I just looked like a monster," she said. "I had to find out who I was."

David Baker, a 55-year-old Tampa plumbing contractor known as A-Train Man, built his superfan persona around former Bucs running back Mike Alstott. When Alstott had to step away from the game last August, Baker's wife, Bonnie, suggested he retire the train whistle and train hat.

"But everyone else wants me to keep it alive, so I'm keeping it alive," said Baker, carefully painting his face above his long, white beard.

Baker is one of the few superfans who tries to attend every Bucs game, including most road games. He was already planning a trip to Dallas, if the Bucs made it to the second round of playoffs.

But they didn't. The costumes and face paint will be put away until next season.

"Now I'm on vacation," Kunzig said after the game.

Back in the good old days, Kunzig used to take losses hard. He got angry. His bad mood lasted all week.

Five tough years later and 150 pounds lighter, though, he realizes there's more to life.

"When we lose like that, you know ...you dwell on it," Kunzig said. "Then you go home and enjoy your life, enjoy your family."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.